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While many are familiar with The Band and some of their hit songs, few know the story of their rise to prominence. While The Band is known for backing Bob Dylan on some of his earliest electric tours and some of his greatest records, they had been along well before this occurrence.
The Band began with guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson. Robertson was born to a mother of First Nation Mohawk descent and his stepfather, his true father was estranged and of Jewish descent. Robertson notes that his love of music began with his Native family. Robertson’s tight rhythms and tasty riffs would be an integral part of the Band’s sound.
Robertson got his first break when fellow Band member Levon Helm noticed and enjoyed his playing at a gig. Levon was then the drummer for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks and invited Robertson to join the group. As Robertson noted, in a podcast interview with Marc Maron, the Hawks was made up of a number of musicians from Arkansas, but would tour in Canada for the greater amount of money they were able to make. Being greatly inconvenient, this compelled many of the group’s members to leave the Hawks to take care of family. As members of the Hawks slowly left the band, they would slowly be replaced by the future members of the Band. Levon Helm was the only member of the Band to have been born in the United States. Hailing from the south, Levon brought a great deal of legitimacy to the folksy, country, bluesy vibe of the group. After leaving both Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, Levon would become one of the driving forces of the Band with his unique, tight and groovy drumming to his soulful voice. Levon Helm would largely set the precedent for the image of the singing drummer.
The second addition to the group was Rick Danko, who would come to perform bass with the group and sing many of its songs. The next addition was Richard Manuel, who was known for his talented piano playing and an impressive vocal range that was masked by his gravelly tone. Manuel would become integral in the group singing a great many of its songs. The final addition to the group was keyboardist and talented multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson. Hudson’s virtuosic and deeply creative keyboard work and talent at the saxophone, accordion and other instruments provided much of the group’s atmosphere.
After Dylan’s 1966 tour was cut short by injury, the Band retreated to Woodstock, New York to create a sound uniquely their own. During this stay, the Band would write a number of songs, with and without Bob Dylan, that would largely make up their first two releases “Music From Big Pink,” and “The Band.”
These and other records are noted for their folky and rootsy feel, at a time when music was trending more toward psychedelic and experimental music. The bluesy and folky feel created by Robertson’s guitar and Richard’s piano is rounded out by the funky and tight rhythms of Levon and Rick and the spacey, nebulous creativity of Garth Hudson’s keyboards.
In addition to recording their own records, the Band would also work with other artists in collaboration. The Band once again backed Dylan on the 1973 album “Planet Waves” and the subsequent tour as well as the 1976 Eric Clapton album “No Reason to Cry.” The Band would end their life on the road in spectacular form with the filming of “The Last Waltz” on Thanksgiving Day 1976. The film, directed by Martin Scorsese, and released in 1978 was a concert film chronicling the end of the Band. The film featured guest performances by Neil Young, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Hawkins, Paul Butterfield, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan and others. The film featured the group performing their hits and the hits of their guests before a select crowd.
Of the original members of the Band, only Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson are still alive. The first member to pass away was Richard Manuel who died of suicide in 1986. It is believed that Manuel was driven to this action by depression and financial woes. Rick Danko passed away in 1999 of heart failure. Levon Helm, who fought and beat cancer once before in the early 2000s succumbed to it in 2013.
Though many of its principle members are dead, the sound and spirit of the Band remains alive and well.